Amazon Charts

Amazon Charts

Screenshot of Amazon Charts page for week of May 14, 2017

Did you get a new type of email from Amazon last week? I did, with a link to the new Amazon Charts website. For years we have been able to see real-time sales rank information on any book on Amazon’s site as well as hourly updates of print and e-book best sellers.

Now Amazon is taking on The New York Times and other venerable best seller lists with a weekly best seller list of fiction and non-fiction books. With a twist.

The twist is that Amazon breaks this into “most read” and “most sold.” “Most read” uses all the information it collects from users of its Kindle e-readers and those using Audible to listen to audio books. “Most sold” includes print, e-books, and audio purchases through its marketplace.

On the one hand, this utilizes the immense amount of data Amazon is constantly collecting to compile its own bestseller lists. At the same time, it is a list that only reflects those using Amazon to buy and read or listen to books. By contrast, The New York Times compiles its lists from a sampling (according to its own secret formula) of independent and chain booksellers and only tells us what people are buying. Truthfully each is selective.

One thing that Amazon does is provide these lists side by side on its “Best Sellers & More” page that includes its Charts lists side by side with The New York Times best sellers. Granted, the books on the Times list also are linked to Amazon’s site. This page also provides editors picks, hourly updates of print, Kindle, and Audible best sellers, and a list of 100 books to read in a lifetime, curated by Amazon’s editors.

Back to Amazon Charts. For each book on the top 20 “most read” and “most sold” lists, you can see reviews, purchase the book, and read a preview. On some books, such as Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Wings and Ruin we have a comment like “unputdownable.” There are also indications of whether the books are eligible for “Prime Reading” (a program where Prime Members can read the book for free) or “Kindle Unlimited” programs.

Obviously, this is designed to drive sales on the Amazon site for those wanting to buy the latest best sellers. Why not? I am not usually that interested in best sellers, unless it is something I want to review, in which case I want to get the book and review it while it is trending. (So such lists do have uses beyond driving sales).

My wife does something online that suggests another use for Amazon Charts. She uses online sites to “pre-shop” so she can decide whether she wants to buy a particular item at a local store. I think Amazon Charts is a great way to pre-shop for books that you might want to browse at a local store and purchase. But then, I think brick and mortar stores are a cultural good that ought to be preserved. Whether or not you agree with my book buying preferences, “Charts” offers another site to learn about the latest and best in books.

Review: The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins, Margaret R. Ellsberg ed., Foreword by Dana Gioia. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of the life and faith of Gerard Manley Hopkins through commentary and a selection of his poetry, letters, journal entries, and sermons.

The life of Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to me a life of startling contrasts. He writes wonderfully vibrant poetry using innovative rhythms–poems that often are celebration of the glory of God evident in the creation. At the same time, he is a devout Jesuit, whose submission to the order meant largely a life as priest and academic examiner in slums of Liverpool, Glasgow, London and Dublin. He died of typhoid contracted from antiquated plumbing. We follow the man who burnt his early poems when he converted to Catholicism and entered the Jesuits, whose life was shaped by the Exercises of St. Ignatius, whose passion was God’s glory, and the incarnation of Christ, revealed afresh in every Eucharist. We also see a man deeply torn between his artistic sensibilities and the physically and psychically crushing routines of most of his life as a Jesuit, to which he seemed ill-suited, that comes through in the anguished “Terrible Sonnets.”

Margaret Ellsberg weaves the narrative of Hopkins life and faith through a combination of commentary, and selections of poetry, letters, sermons, and journals throughout the course of his short life. Because there are only 49 of his poems extant, many of these are included in this selection, set in the context of his life. It is fascinating that Robert Bridges, who subsequently published his works, struggled to make sense of them and found at least one sufficiently difficult that (in Hopkins words) “you wd. not for any money read my poem again (“The Wreck of the Deutschland”). Ellsberg’s work gives us clues, sometimes from Hopkins himself, to the understanding of his poetry, and that is what makes this work most attractive, along with the selections of his poetry.

As much as I love Hopkins poetry (my favorite is “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”), the title of this work (part of a series sharing “The Gospel In…”) mystifies me in some ways because the gospel may have evoked praise and wonder with regard to God’s work in the world but mostly despair with regard to his own life. Wonder and devotion there is in great measure, but a sense of peace, of wholeness seems lacking. There is the dutiful fulfillment of assignments that seem poorly fitted to who he is, which makes one wonder why he chose the Jesuits and the priesthood. Compounding his struggle was physical weakness, and perhaps a melancholy character. But gospel also implies “good news”, hope for us in our fragile humanity. Only on his deathbed does he find some peace, as he whispers over and over, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy.”

Perhaps there is something of temperament in all of this, an artist not fully at home in his world, torn by the tension between “God’s Grandeur” and the ugliness of much of what he endured around him. One wonders if different choices or different assignments might have made a difference. Or was it something “unreconciled” in his “gospel” that seemed to result in a life of great devotion but little contentment or peace?

Yet we have this great poetry, much of it an effervescing abundance captured in the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Hopkins life remains an enigma to me, but I can thank his Maker and mine for the gift of his writing. I leave you with “God’s Grandeur”

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Face of Forgiveness

The Face of Forgiveness

The Face of ForgivenessPhilip D. Jamieson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Explores the struggle of many in experiencing and granting forgiveness and what the author believes are inadequate understandings of the atonement that fail to deal with our shame as well as our guilt, and how in fact the work of Christ addresses both.

Philip Jamieson begins this book with a pastoral situation many of us have faced–someone sits across from us and confesses that they find themselves unable to forgive another person, because of the awful ways that person has offended. They want to observe Jesus words about “forgiving the trespasses of others” but they simply cannot.

What follows is an extended discussion of the nature of forgiveness. Jamieson considers the recent renewal of interest in forgiveness in modern psychology. There is much that is helpful, and even biblical, yet he believes, particularly in the separation of forgiveness from reconciliation, and the detachment of forgiveness from the work of Christ, these models of forgiveness fall short.

He also contends that part of our problem in people struggling both with being forgiven and extending forgiveness has to do with theories of the atonement that focus on sin’s guilt, to the exclusion of sin’s shame. Our downturned faces, and the inability to look into the faces of others contributes to this alienation both from God and others. Jamieson would not jettison the existing theories of the atonement but rather focuses on how it is that Christ both bears our shame and is victorious over it in the cross and the resurrection. This is the face of forgiveness, which he describes in this way:

“In his last act, high and lifted up, Jesus–the man who fully reveals God, now fully revealed–joins sinful humanity in our downward gaze. Jesus dies in the posture of shame, embracing the world’s shame. ‘It is finished.’ The face, once set like a flint (Isaiah 50:7) on his way to Jerusalem, to this very death (Lk 9:51), now stares, unblinkingly downcast, bearing humanity’s shame. He joins all of us: solidarity with the shamed. But again, this face is different. For this face in its downward gaze is not looking away from his neighbors; he is looking at them. The last act of the dying Savior is to fix his gaze upon those who are in need of salvation. Our forgiveness has already been pronounced (Lk 23:34) and now the dying God provides the means to accept it. Karl Barth notes there is no other face like Jesus. Jesus’ is the face that will not look away. Jesus is the face that sees all and still loves all. Jesus’ face alone is the one that has power to forgive and to give us the healing power to accept that forgiveness” (p. 114).

Jamieson then discusses three important practices, all communal, where we learn to live before Christ’s face, experiencing his forgiveness removing our shame and our guilt and enabling us to do this with those who have sinned against us. He calls for confession, for small groups where we talk honestly about issues of guilt and shame, and worship, where we confess together as a church in our worship of the Triune God.

Jamieson concludes the book with his answer to “Jane,” the parishioner asking about forgiveness, an answer rooted in the rich pastoral theology of this book. And that is what we are given in 157 pages of text. We are brought to reflect deeply on the consequences in the human psyche of the pretensions to god-hood of each of us, re-enacting the sin of the first couple. We explore the nature of shame, our penchant to run from God, and how this is addressed in the work of the cross. It isn’t just something we have to “get over” as people whose guilt is pardoned. Shame, too, has been borne.

What I most appreciate about this is that while it is a “pastoral theology of shame and redemption” it is rooted in good systematic and historical theology. I also appreciate how it is also rooted in the church and a theology of grace. Forgiveness is not presented as an individual effort to think better of ourselves and others but as a corporately supported reality that recognizes the continuing presence and power of Christ at work in his people gathered. While cognizant of psychology, this is the care of souls rooted in a fresh appreciation of the theology we preach, pray, and enact in worship each week. Refreshing!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Vietnam

3rd_Marines_patrolling_near_Quang_Tri_River_in_Vietnam_1967

3rd Marines patrolling near Quang Tri River, Russell Jewett, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There was a cloud that hung over many of our lives growing up in the Youngstown of the 1960’s and 1970’s. No, it is not the clouds from the mills. It was the ongoing war in Vietnam (which was actually good for industry). Many of our young men would go there, some would die, and others would return, some wounded, and some bearing mental wounds they carry to this day.

While our involvement began in the Eisenhower era, and John Kennedy sent a growing number of “advisors,” it was during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson that I became aware of the war. I was in about fifth grade when I first started reading daily news stories in The Vindicator of “body counts” and plans to send more troops there. We were told with more troops and bombing, we were winning the war. We would see nightly news coverage of embedded journalists and footage of battle action in our living rooms.

For many, the turning point seemed to be the Tet offensive of 1968, a major reversal despite a half million troops and extensive bombing. We began to wonder if this was a different kind of war and if we were being told the truth. It helped bring Richard Nixon to office in 1968, on promises to get us out of the war with our dignity intact. Around this time, I was a paper boy. One of my customers was a returning veteran. He offered to tell me the real story of the war. I regret I never took him up on it.

In 1970, I was a high school sophomore at Chaney. Richard Nixon decided to extend bombing campaigns into Cambodia where enemy troops took refuge. To many college students facing the draft, this was a betrayal of the promise to end the war and demonstrations and riots broke out on many campuses. At nearby Kent State, May 4 was the terrible day when four students died and thirteen others were wounded by the Ohio National Guard troops. All of us at school the next day walked around stunned. Stunned shifted to scared when we heard some adults say, “they should have killed more.”

It made me wonder how they looked at me, with my longish hair. It told me how deeply we were divided, and I think this gave everyone pause as campuses suspended classes early. Somehow, we walked back from the abyss as a nation. In 1972, I registered for the draft, hoping I wouldn’t be called and that I would get a high lottery number. Mine was 12, but I dodged a bullet in more ways than one. Nixon was winding the war down and bringing troops home. The last men drafted were those a year older than I was.

The most difficult thing perhaps was that we lumped our soldiers in with our politicians who lied to us about the war, not explaining the kind of conflict we were in honestly. I know there are lots of arguments about whether we could have achieved victory in Vietnam. I don’t want to re-fight that war. Rather, I want to acknowledge that the men and women who served deserve all the honor as heroes they have only belatedly received. Many were just like me–hoping it wouldn’t come down to them–but doing what their country asked of them as their fathers did in World War II.

Vietnam was a lesson for us as a nation of how important it was that our leaders tell us the truth, particularly when making the case for sending our young men and women into harm’s way. While deceiving the nation cost Lyndon Johnson another presidential term, it cost thousands of young men their lives. It has marked our life as a nation ever since. It is always the case that when our leaders lie, it will be our people, and especially our working classes that will bear the brunt. To paraphrase an old protest song, “when will we ever learn?”

Why I’m Not Obsessed with My Goodreads Reading Challenge

Goodreads Recent Updates

My Goodreads Reading Challenge as of 5/18/17

I guess there is something to our nature as human beings that needs challenges. It could be losing weight. Or running a marathon in under three hours. Or getting 10,000 steps on your Fitbit. Those of us who are bibliophiles have our own challenges. And one of the most popular is the annual Goodreads Reading Challenge. This year, over 2 million people have set reading challenges for themselves. As of right now, their challenges add up to 94,585,110 books, or roughly 46 books a person. I’ve seen challenges anywhere between reading one book to hundreds. This year I set a goal of 110, five more than my goal last year. I do it mostly for the fun of seeing the goals of my friends. I always read more than my goal without really trying.

I’m writing about this today because of an amusing article in Bookriot titled “Why I’m Obsessed with My Goodreads Challenge Tracker.” I think for this writer (and apparently a number of commenters!) that this really is an obsession. Would you consider reading a bunch of children’s books, graphic novels and novellas at the end of the year just to make your challenge obsessive? Would you consider yourself an abject failure, a wipeout, if you got behind on your reading goal, or horror of horrors, finished the year short of your goal? Apparently this writer is far from alone.

I guess there is one simple reason why I do not obsess over my challenge. And that is that, short of an emergency, I set a goal that I will reach with time to spare, given my reading habits. That way I get to enjoy all those good feelings the writer describes of seeing her list of completed challenges and being ahead on the current one. Shouldn’t something connected with your favorite activity make you feel even better about it?And by most standards 110 books (a bit over two a week) is a goodly number of books. Some think I’m crazy that I read that many.

I don’t like the idea of worrying that I’ll fall behind if I sink my teeth into a really long history or Russian novel. It’s nice to have some slack if other things rise to greater importance and I have to set aside my books.

Jesus of Nazareth once said that we should be careful in trying to remove a speck from someone else’s eye while we have a log in our own. As I thought about this, it occurred to me that I may have book-related obsessions that make the writer’s look benign.

Probably one of the biggest is simply keeping up with my “to be read” piles, or for that matter, the “to be reviewed” pile. I swear that when I turn out the lights at night, they multiply! Actually it is a case of requesting more interesting books to review from various publishers than I should. I probably shouldn’t buy any. That, as much as anything accounts for reaching reading goals–it is not the goal, but the burgeoning TBR pile that can sometimes lead to obsessive reading (“gotta get through this–it’s been three months since the publisher sent it on my request!”).

Objectively, I haven’t done too badly with this, reviewing 30 books that were advance review copies so far this year. It’s fun when a new book to review comes in the mail–until you add it to the pile and queue it with the others and have that realization that it will be a while until you read it unless you read faster! Funny how you don’t think of that when you are reading the description of a book you are considering requesting! Then the rationale is, “that looks like an important book, I’ll fit it in somewhere!”

Well, I think all I’ve accomplished here is to demonstrate that booknerds are indeed quirky people. But you already probably knew that, whether you are a booknerd or not. But to paraphrase my favorite teacher–“let him (or her) without obsessions cast the first stone!”

 

 

Review: An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Summary: A collection of studies on the life and ministry of Paul that explores this unusual Jew who is comfortable moving among Greeks and Romans as he proclaims the Christ he encountered on the way to Damascus.

About the only thing scholars can agree upon concerning the Apostle Paul is that he was born a Jew. In an introductory chapter, Michael F. Bird surveys the options most commonly chosen to explain this apostle who claims on one hand that everything from his former life as a Jew is “crap” compared to the surpassing worth of Christ, and yet “becomes a Jew, in order to win the Jews.” Is he really a former Jew who has abandoned Judaism? A transformed Jew, an Israelite in Christ? A faithful Jew? Or a radical Jew? There is something to be said for each of these views and significant scholars associated with each one. Bird proposes an alternative–Paul is an anomalous Jew because he tries “to create a social space for a unified body of Jewish and Gentile Christ-believers worshiping God” (p. 28).

In succeeding chapters, Bird presents five “studies” (most individually published elsewhere) that underscore the anomalous character of Paul’s Jewishness, shaped by his mission to Gentiles and Jews. He begins by exploring Paul’s ideas of salvation, which both comes from the Jews and is for the Jews, but is also for the Gentiles and found in Christ, and not Torah. Chapter 2 shows how Paul is indeed apostle both to Gentiles and to Jews and how much the latter occupied his attention. Chapter 3 addresses the debate between apocalypticism and salvation history in Paul through a study of Galatians showing both elements reaching their height in the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. Chapter 4 focuses in on the incident at Antioch described in Galatians 2:11-14 as the beginning of Paulinism “understood as the antithesis between Christ and Torah when the salvation and equal status of Gentiles is on the line” (p. 203). It also marks a parting in the ways between Paul and the Jerusalem church, not absolute as evident in Paul’s efforts for the relief of that church. Finally, chapter 5 explores the “anti-imperial” undertones of Paul’s letter to the Romans. On its face it presents no civil or military challenge to Roman order. Yet its assertions of the kingdom of the Messiah and the new sociopolitical entity of the church in fact was a profound challenge to Rome which would ultimately supplant empire.

Bird writes:

    “In sum, Paul was a religious anomaly. He appeared on the scene of the Greco-Roman world like a sudden yet small ripple moving upon the waters of a still river. He goes mostly unnoticed in his own time, and yet by the time the ripple reaches the shore of the modern age, it has become a tsunami. Paul’s anomaly, offensive as it was to the Jews and odd as it was to Greeks, became the Gentile Christianity that eventually swallowed up the Roman Empire and that, even to this day, two millenia later, casts its shadow upon the religious landscape of the world. Not bad for a Jewish tentmaker from Tarsus!” (p. 30)

Of the writing of books on Paul, there seems no end! What makes this one distinctive is that it provides a reading of Paul’s life and mission that reconciles seemingly disparate threads of scripture and explains them by Paul’s vision of the new people, Jew and Gentile together, formed by Messiah Jesus. It explains both the consonant and dissonant elements in his Jewishness, his reaction at Antioch, and the content of his letter to the Roman church.

Michael Bird represents a younger generation of theological scholars from “down under” who are beginning to make their mark in biblical and theological studies. I look forward to hearing more from him and others like him!

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Two Paths

Two Paths

Two Paths: America Divided or UnitedJohn Kasich. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2017.

Summary: The presidential candidate’s memoir of his campaign and the choice of the low and high paths of political engagement we face and his vision for that high path.

No matter who you favored in the recent presidential campaign, you probably would agree that it was one of the most rancorous and ugly on record. John Kasich, current governor of Ohio and one of sixteen Republican candidates was determined not to pursue the coarse, mud-slinging style pursued by other candidates. He describes observing the behavior of the other candidates at the first Republican debate and determining, “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.”

This memoir describes Kasich’s campaign journey from his wrestling with whether to run to his second place finish in New Hampshire and the joy he found in town hall discussions with prospective voters to his decision to suspend his campaign under pressure from Republican leadership, including Reince Priebus. He recounts the reasons why he refused to endorse Donald Trump after reviewing numerous video clips of his campaign rallies. Weighing heavily for him was the fact that he is the father of two teenage daughters, and given what Trump did and said, he considered it “unthinkable” that he could ever endorse Trump. Consequently, he spent the convention outside the convention hall and voted for John McCain as a write in during the election.

Kasich argues that his faith as a Christian shaped the convictions that led to a refusal to stoop to the tactics of others, or to endorse the paragon of these tactics. He writes:

“What does God expect of me? I believe He expects me to live on a higher plane, all the while knowing that I will surely fail. I believe the higher plane he sets before me is a call to resist the gravitational pull of life on earth, which is just a lot of the base stuff that can fill our days in negative ways: envy, hatred, jealousy, intolerance, self-aggrandizement, looking merely to accumulate wealth or fame. If you think about it, when it’s time for us to leave this earth, these negatives can all seem kind of mundane. Yet, in the ills of society we see these negatives on full and forceful display. It’s the way we sidestep those negatives and walk in the light that will come to define us after all” (p. 122).

He contends that our present character of politics reflects not only leadership but also “followship.” He believes we all share responsibility for amplifying “fake news” and perpetuating the echo chambers of one-sided discourse. Political followers need to hold leaders to higher standards, and hold those standards as well.

Toward the end of the book, he includes much of the text of his “Two Paths” speech to the Women’s National Republican Club in New York, which outlines his vision both for an elevated discourse, and probably provides the most concise summary of the policies Kasich would have pursued as president.

I had two reactions as I read this book. One was the recurring thought, “if only….” I do not know if Kasich could have defeated Hillary Clinton. But what a different country it would have been if he’d had that chance. The other was thinking it was Kasich’s focus on the ethos of his campaign, which became his message, that probably was one of the reasons he lost. It wasn’t a compelling message for most Americans, apparently.

Is Kasich as good as he appears in this book? He presents himself as a man of faith, a family man, a principled and determined politician willing to reach across the aisle. Living in Ohio, I’d say most of this is true, except when he has a majority behind him, as he has enjoyed during his tenure as governor. Only a voter referendum reversed efforts to break up unions for public workers, similar to what was done in Wisconsin. It is not apparent to me how much he has “reached across the aisle” in our state and certainly our legislature has engaged in the gerrymandering of districts he says must be ended for electoral reform.

Still, this book gives a good glimpse of what the country missed in overlooking Kasich. Truth was that I urged my friends in other states to join the island of sanity that was Ohio during the primaries and vote for Kasich on the Republican side. If only….

 

Review: The Affair at the Bungalow

The Affair at the Bungalow

The Affair at the Bungalow, Agatha Christie. New York: Witness Impulse, 2013 (originally published in the anthology Thirteen Problems in 1932).

Summary: Actress Jane Helier tells a story of a mysterious burglary at a bungalow in the town where she is acting in a play, involving a woman impersonating her and an unfortunate young playwright. Miss Marple, professing to be baffled, privately hints at a different story.

Most readers are familiar with Agatha Christie’s full-length mysteries. This is a delightful short story originally part of an anthology titled Thirteen Problems first published in 1932, and now available in e-book form as a stand-alone short story.

Jane Helier, an actress, is with a party of friends including Miss Marple, and turns the conversation to a mysterious event that happened to a “friend” of hers, who is quickly found out to be Jane herself. She was in a town by a river (“Riverbury”) as part of a play company when called upon by the police to confront a young man arrested for burglary. The story gets more interesting when the young man, a playwright, claims he was summoned to a bungalow, the site of the burglary, by Miss Helier. Of course, when he sees Miss Helier, he realizes the other woman was not her. He had called at the bungalow, was introduced by the maid to “Miss Helier,” had a drink, and woke by the side of the road, only to be arrested for burglary. It seems that a case of jewels owned by the mistress of a wealthy city man has been stolen while the house was empty. The mistress was an actress, herself married.

By then it is obvious that the young playwright, Leslie Faulkener, was innocent of the crime. But who stole the jewels? The actress, the maid? The party weights all the angles of the story, and at the end, even Miss Marple professes to be mystified as to the solution, and their ire is further aroused when Jane Helier herself offers no resolution.

As the party is breaking up Miss Marple whispers in Jane’s ear, leaving her startled. Did Miss Marple know more than she let on, that not all was as it seemed? And what did she mean when she said, “What I do realize is that women must stick together–one should, in an emergency, stand by one’s own sex. I think that’s the moral of the story Miss Helier has told us”? What did Miss Marple whisper in her ear?

The one question, which mystifies Miss Helier herself, also mystified me and that is how did Miss Marple know? The resolution of the mystery hinges on information Miss Helier had not told anyone, including Miss Marple, introducing new characters not known to us. How did she know? Was it the vagueness at points in the story? The fact that Miss Helier herself does not know the ending?

In this case, one has only to read twenty-one pages to discover what is going on. But the story demonstrates Christie’s art–to draw one into a crime puzzle–in this case one without a murder, and finish it with a surprise

 

Review: How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

How I Changed My Mind About EvolutionKathryn Applegate and J. B. Stump, eds. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Twenty-five narratives of Christians who accept evolutionary creation and how, in most cases, they changed their minds in reaching this conclusion.

There is a widespread impression in American universities and among many young people that Christianity and science are at war with each other. No where is this more the case than over the issue of evolution. And sadly, many young people walk away from their faith, seeing the explanatory power of evolutionary theory and the failure of “evidences” for some creationist positions to hold up under scientific scrutiny. In many cases their teachers in the church have presented a choice between believing Christianity and believing science and that both are not possible and they believed them.

The twenty-five contributors to this book share two things in common–they deny that science and faith need be at war, and they embrace a position which they describe throughout the book as evolutionary creation (others would describe this as theistic evolution). They are scientists like Wisconsin embryologist Jeff Hardin, pastors like John Ortberg, biblical scholars like Scot McKnight and N. T. Wright, and theologians like James K. A. Smith. Most came to this position after much careful thought and study of both the scriptures and the science, often from young earth views, hence the title. N.T. Wright stands apart in observing that the American and British landscapes around these issues are very different, with most British Christians not seeing the conflict. He explores the elements in the American worldview that he thinks contribute to our scientifically and politically polarized climate.

The journey was sometimes costly. Tremper Longman III describes being terminated from a seminary position for coming to a position that did not see Genesis in conflict with evolution. For others, this was a journey of joyful discovery. Deborah Haarsma, a physicist and president of BioLogos (publishing partner for this book) describes how her understanding of evolutionary creation fosters worship as she praises God for his work over the long term, the glory of the system by which life came forth, his upholding of the natural world, all that is glorious in creation, and how aspects of creation illuminate scripture.

Pastor John Ortberg speaks of a phenomenon I’ve observed in work with Christians in graduate school and on faculty. They struggle with a kind of spiritual loneliness. He writes, after attending a BioLogos conference with many Christians in science:

“I can’t tell you how often I’d sit down with somebody at that conference and hear them say, ‘You know, when I’m at work and I’m with a bunch of scientists, they’re really skeptical about my faith. They’re suspicious about me.’ Then they’d say, ‘When I go to my church, they’re really skeptical about me because of my science. I feel like I don’t have a place where I really belong.’ The church ought to be a place where scientists can feel at home” (p. 94).

Several themes running through many of the contributions are a love of both scripture and science, a passion to think about the relationship between the two without forced solutions, which often means living with questions, and the importance within the Christian community for places where these questions may be explored in safety. Jeff Hardin discusses how he makes sense of evolutionary biology in light of his faith:

“One important ingredient in any answer is a commitment to apply the right interpretive approaches to the book of God’s Word and the ‘book’ of his world. Evangelical scholars have been crucial here in helping the church read ancient documents as they were originally intended to be read. Second, I believe that while the church should passionately affirm each of these two ‘books.’ we must resist the temptation to insist on an excessively tight articulation between each, given our limited human understanding. Third, we need to provide a space where godly people can engage in edifying dialogue about difficult subjects” (p. 60).

Not coincidentally, the collection is concluded by Richard Mouw discussing the creating of these safe spaces where hard questions can be discussed and different points of view explored respectfully. He recounts a conversation with a Catholic couple wondering about the thinking about creation they had encountered among many evangelicals about, and musing, “Don’t you evangelicals realize that God is slow?” Mouw raises the question of whether, indeed, our quest for quick solutions to hard questions is part of our problem–we have a hard time when God moves slowly.

This book is probably most helpful for those who, like the authors, are not satisfied with how they read the two “books” of science and scripture together, how they understand evolution in light of their faith. It will be helpful to any Christian in the biological sciences who must face these questions. And it will help pastors as they work with scientists and youth as they engage with science.

Lastly, I hope this book contributes to a different kind of conversation between Christians and those in science, whether they believe or not. Both of us, when we study the world, marvel at what we see and wonder at its intricacy and beauty. Might we have conversations celebrating together the capacities that enable us to explore and the wonderful things we find? Might we model a hunger for truth that never fears that a new discovery will diminish God, or us? And might we collaborate together in exploring ways to use what we find for the good of our fellow creatures? It just might lead a group of scientists to someday write a companion to this book titled How I Changed My Mind About Christianity.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Senior Proms

Preprom

Ken Stokes, CC BY-SA 3.0, Via Wikimedia 

It is prom season. These days, it seems a much bigger deal than it once was involving stretch limos and coordination of dresses and men’s wear, and sometimes elaborate after-proms.

 

Did you go to your senior prom? I did. I dated a girl (a sophomore) throughout my senior year at Chaney so we had both kind of expected to go. We went with another couple who did the driving. Those were the days where you bought a corsage that you pinned on the girl’s dress–always a bit of a scary experience! I think the wrist corsage is a great idea.

I don’t have any pictures from that night. Dad’s camera did not work for some reason when we came by to take pictures. Perhaps that was just as well. Crushed velvet was in fashion for tux jackets back then, and I had one in blue (which did match my girlfriend’s dress). I’m kind of glad there is no evidence!

We went out for dinner at Palazzo’s. I actually don’t remember much about the dinner except that the food was good, and I paid. Then we arrived at the prom. I think we made some kind of entrance as a couple. I have to confess that my memories are pretty vague here. There was some kind of seating of the prom court, lots of dancing, punch that really was just punch.

Eventually we made our way to the after-prom, which was at Wedgewood Lanes, if I remember. We snacked, talked to friends, bowled and partied until nearly sunrise. I think that was one of the really cool things–this was the night without curfew. I remember being so tired–a bit loopy by the end–and getting ready to bowl the ball only to drop it behind me. Watch out friends! You can tell that late nights were not my thing.

We dropped off dates, went home and finally caught a bit of sleep after a quick report of “fine” when our parents asked us how the prom was. Then it was time to get the tux back to the rental store. I have a hunch that with flowers, dinner, the prom itself, after prom and tux rental, I spent maybe $150, probably less. Wikipedia says that the average price of a prom in 2013 was $1139.

The truth was, by the time of the prom, the relationship between my girlfriend and I was strained. I suspect we were holding out so that we could have someone to go to the prom with–you could probably go without a date but I don’t know anyone who did. A month later, the relationship was history–probably a relief to both of us actually.

It’s funny how often it seems to work like this–although I also know friends who married, and are still happily married to, their high school sweethearts. I can’t say that my senior prom was that special of an experience. But it was part of the celebrations that marked this rite of passage from high school to young adulthood for many of us. It was a kind of entry into adulthood. The girls we saw everyday in jeans and t-shirts or sweaters suddenly appeared as beautiful women. And scruffy boys cleaned up and for a night looked like a young approximation of James Bond (that’s probably an exaggeration in my case!). It was a bit of a “Camelot” type of experience, before our entry into the world of work, or the preparations for a career in college and graduate school. We danced with the sense that all our life was before us.

This year marks 45 years since that prom and graduation. How does that happen? We’ve watched our son go through the same prom rituals (and this time the camera worked and we still have the pictures). Now we pass by homes where others are taking pictures, or we see the pictures on Facebook. And we think, there was a time…once we were young…what a couple we made!